The Importance of Liberty & Democracy in India
By :Justice Markandey Katju, Judge, Supreme Court of India
In view of the recent incidents of terrorism in some places in India some people have started saying that to combat terrorism it is necessary to curtail civil liberties and introduce draconian laws. To my mind, this is a dangerous idea, and hence it is necessary to explain the importance of liberty and democracy for our country’s progress. Nobody denies the need to oppose terrorism, but in my opinion by passing draconian laws, terrorism and crime will not be reduced and instead our country’s progress will be obstructed.
What is our national aim ? To my mind, our national aim must be to make India a highly prosperous country for its citizens (and not just for a handful of people of our country), and for that it is necessary to have a high degree of industrialization.
Even setting up and running a single primary school requires a lot of money, e.g. for buying land, erecting the school building and providing for the recurrent expenditure for salaries of teachers, staff, etc. We have to set up in our country not just one primary school, but hundreds of thousands of primary schools, tens of thousands of high schools and colleges and engineering colleges, technical institutes, medical colleges, scientific research centres, hospitals, libraries etc.
Where is the money for all these to come from ? Money does not fall from the sky. It can only come from a highly developed industry, and it is industrialization alone which can generate the wealth we need for the welfare of our people.
Today India is a poor country. Nobody respects the poor. It is for this reason that we do not have much respect in the world community (whatever we may think of ourselves). It is industrialization alone which can abolish poverty and unemployment, which are the main causes of crime and terrorism, and give us respect in the world community.
Also, when there is rapid industrialization, which is our national target, millions of jobs will be created which will solve the problem of unemployment.
For industrialization, development of science is absolutely necessary, and for that freedom is also absolutely necessary freedom to think, freedom to write, freedom to discuss with others, freedom to explain, freedom to criticize and freedom to dissent.
The growth of science requires certain supportive values, particularly liberty. This is because the thought process cannot develop without freedom. The values of a scientific community viz., pluralism, tolerance, individual freedom and free flow of information are very similar to the values of democratic society (see ‘Science and the Making of the Modern World’ by John Marks).
A democratic society permits freedom of speech and expression, freedom to practise one’s own religion which is based on tolerance, and freedom to dissent and criticize. These are precisely the values of the scientific community. In other words, in scientific matters authoritarianism and dogmatism are wholly out of place. Scientists must be left to govern themselves, and have large amount of freedom which is necessary for innovation and creativity. Hence, democracy and liberty go hand in hand with the growth of science because both are based on tolerance, individual freedom and free flow of ideas. In democracy, as in a scientific community, there is freedom to speak, freedom to discuss, freedom to criticize and freedom to dissent.
Justice Louis D. Brandeis, of the U.S. Supreme Court in
Whitney vs. California 274 U.S. 357, writing in 1927 observed:
“Those who won our independence believed that the final end of the State was to make men free to develop their faculties; and that in its government the deliberative forces should prevail over the arbitrary. They valued liberty both as an end and as a means. They believed liberty to be the secret of happiness and courage to be the secret of liberty. They believed that freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth; that without free speech and assembly discussion would be futile; that with them, discussion affords ordinarily adequate protection against the dissemination of noxious doctrine; that the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people; that public discussion is a political duty; and that this should be a fundamental principle of the American government. They recognized the risks to which all human institutions are subject. But they knew that order cannot be secured merely through fear of punishment for its infraction; that it is hazardous to discourage thought, hope and imagination; that fear breeds repression; that repression breeds hate; that hate menaces stable government; that the path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies; and that the fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones. Believing in the power of reason as applied through public discussion, they eschewed silence coerced by law – the argument of force in its worst form. Recognizing the occasional tyrannies of governing majorities, they amended the Constitution so that free speech and assembly should be guaranteed”.
Similarly, Justice William O. Douglas in Terminiello vs.
Chicago 337 US 1 (1949) observed :
“….[A] function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute. It may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger. Speech is often provocative and challenging. It may strike at prejudices and preconceptions and have profound unsettling effects as it presses for acceptance of an idea. That is why freedom of speech, though not absolute, is nevertheless protected against censorship or punishment, unless shown likely to produce a clear and present danger of a serious substantive evil that rises far above public inconvenience, annoyance or unrest… There is no room under our Constitution for a more restrictive view. For the alternative would lead to standardization of ideas either by legislatures, courts, or dominant political or community groups”.
In our own country, in ancient times the method of Shastrarthas had been developed. These were debates in which the thinkers of those times had full freedom to speak and to criticize their opponents in the opponent’s presence, and also in the presence of a large assembly of people. There are thousands of references to such Shastrarthas in our epics and other literature. It was this freedom to freely discuss and criticize in ancient India which resulted in tremendous growth of knowledge even in such ancient times, including not only in philosophy, grammar etc. but also scientific knowledge, e.g. mathematics, astronomy, medicines, etc. The names of Aryabhatt, Brahmagupta, Bhaskar, Sushrut and Charak are known to all. With the aid of science we had built mighty civilizations e.g. the Indus Valley Civilization when people in Europe were living in forests.
In this connection we may also mention about modern European history. England was the first country in the world to industrialize and modernize. This economic process was accompanied with the political struggle for liberty and democracy in the 17th and 18th centuries, which was particularly a struggle between the King and Parliament. As we all know, Parliament won, and this laid the foundation of freedom and civil liberties in England, which was necessary to create the atmosphere which science requires to prosper.
Similarly, in France, before the French Revolution of 1789, the thinkers of the Enlightenment-Rousseau, Voltaire, Diderot, Holbach, etc. who attacked feudalism and religious dogmatism paved the way for the Revolution of 1789 which destroyed feudalism, and led to scientific progress. On the other hand, in Italy, Spain and some other countries the Inquisition stifled free thinking and thereby scientific growth. All scientific ideas which were not consistent with the Bible were regarded as crimes e.g. the theory of Copernicus which stated that the earth moved around the sun and not the sun around the earth. As a result, these countries were left far behind England and France, and remained in the feudal dark ages for centuries.
The struggle to establish the scientific outlook was not an easy one. Scientific ideas initially were condemned because they were regarded as opposed to religious dogma. Voltaire and Rousseau had to fly for their lives to other countries. The Church persecuted the greatest scientists with blind cruelty, burning them at the stake (e.g. Bruno), torturing them (e.g. Galileo), and forbidding or destroying their works. As recently as in 1925 the teaching of Darwin’s theory of evolution was forbidden in the state of Tennessee in U.S.A., and a teacher John Scopes was tried in the famous ‘Monkey Trial’ for teaching that theory. For centuries the Church in Europe played an extremely reactionary role and fought pitilessly against the scientific conception of the world, and against the democratic movements. In India, if we are to progress and rise as a world power, we have to spread the scientific outlook to every nook and corner in our country, and destroy the superstitions, e.g. the belief in astrology and palmistry, and the feudal ideas of casteism and communalism.
Science is that knowledge by which we can understand nature (and human society) and use this knowledge for our benefit. For doing so, the scientists rely on reason, observation and experiment. This obviously cannot be done on the dictates of anyone (though the government can certainly create the atmosphere where these can flourish). Science and democratic values go hand in hand.
In science, there is no final word, unlike in religion. Science questions everything and does not take anything for granted. Obviously, this approach is not permitted in an undemocratic society, e.g. feudal society (which is governed by religion) or fascist society (in which there is a dictator). Thus, Hitler, with his Nazi racial philosophy, caused an enormous setback to science in Germany by persecuting Jewish scientists and banning their works (e.g. Einstein).
We have, no doubt, to oppose the terrorism of modern times which is, in fact, medieval obscurantism, e.g. the Taliban bombing of schools or closing down of existing girls’ schools etc. But to fight such terrorism we should not give up our modern values of liberty and freedom. Obscurantism can only be opposed by modern scientific thinking.
Indeed, in India, after the Constitution was adopted in 1950, there was an atmosphere of liberal freedom in view of the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution e.g. the right to free speech (Article 19), liberty (Article 21), equality (Articles 14 to 17), religious freedom (Article 25), etc. This helped growth of science and technology in our country, because it created an atmosphere of freedom where people including the scientists could freely discuss and dissent. If we compare our country with the neighbouring countries, there were no such freedoms in those countries and hence those countries lagged far behind in economic growth.
Apart from the above, the advanced sections of society who want to take the country forward, and have the knowledge to do so, must have a lot of freedom to discuss, debate and criticize each other. They are the pioneers and are entering into a new field, much of which is unknown. Hence, they must have freedom to think, discuss and criticize.
As pointed out by John Stuart Mill in his celebrated essay ‘On Liberty’, all progress advancement of knowledge and progressive change and improvement of old ways of thinking, and the consequent old behaviour-patterns, habits, customs and traditions can come about only from free individual dissents and dissentions, innovations, etc. which are at first usually resisted by inert or conservative people (who are usually the vast majority), and by a free competition between the old and new ideas. As pointed out by Mill, in any society ordinarily the majority shares old thoughts and traditions, and there is a strong tendency to insist on conformity and collective unity or solidarity, to repress dissents and innovations, and to tolerate only what the majority agree with. This inevitably works to prevent any progress and to thwart the creative impulses of the more creative and original minds. Extensive freedom to dissent and innovate, in all spheres of life, activity, culture and thought in all directions, including expressing ideas initially thought strange and often disliked by the conservative tradition-bound majority are indispensable for progress. The intellectually advanced and creative individuals are often in the minority, and are regarded as non-conforming eccentrics and deviants, and there is often a tendency to suppress them. This is why liberal democracy, i.e. majority rule but qualified and limited by firm protection of minorities, and individual rights and liberties, even as against the governing majority, is essential for progress. The majority often consists of mediocre persons who wish to continue in the old ways of thinking and practices. Hence the liberties and rights have to be guaranteed to the often powerless tiny minorities and lone individuals so that scientific progress can take place.
As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. of the U.S. Supreme Court in his dissenting judgment in Abrams vs. United States, (1919) observed :
“….The best test of truth is the power of the
thought to get itself accepted in the
competition of the market….”
The importance of the judiciary in India in this connection must also be highlighted in this country. In this connection reference may be made to two decisions of the Supreme Court viz., Govt of A.P. and others vs. P. Laxmi Devi [2008 (4) SCC 720, JT 2008 (2) 639] and Deepak Bajaj vs. State of Maharashtra and others [JT 2008 (11) SC 609]. In these cases, the Supreme Court has emphasized the importance of liberty for progress, and has observed that the judiciary must act as guardians of the liberties of the people, protecting them against executive, or even legislative arbitrariness or despotism.
India needs democracy and scientific knowledge, and that means patiently spreading scientific ideas amongst the vast masses, raising their cultural level and involving them actively in the task of nation building.
To my mind, harsh and draconian laws will curb liberty, and that will not only violate the right to liberty granted by Article 21 of the Constitution, but will also lead to great evils e.g. increase in corruption in the police and other law enforcing agencies, which will have much more opportunities to extort money from the citizens, apart from impeding scientific and economic growth, which is vital for our country.
To my mind, crime and terrorism cannot be eliminated by draconian laws, but only by abolition of poverty and unemployment which are the main sources of crime. It is only rapid industrialization which can abolish poverty and unemployment, which will largely eliminate crime and terrorism.